CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s former military chief and presumed presidential front-runner visited the Coptic pope Saturday ahead of Orthodox Easter, making his first public appearance since he formally made his bid for the presidency.
Pope Tawadros II is a strong backer of retired Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who removed the country’s first democratically elected president last summer after a wave of popular protests.
Tawadros backed the military’s overthrow of Islamist Mohammed Morsi and appeared alongside el-Sissi with Muslim leaders and secular politicians after his ouster. Following Morsi’s removal, rioters burned and vandalized churches and government buildings in the country.
Orthodox Easter is Sunday and El-Sissi’s visit to the pope’s seat of power at St. Mark’s Cathedral is a tribute to the country’s Christians, some 10 percent of Egypt’s population. Morsi never visited the Cathedral, instead sending a representative last year. Some radical Islamists had argued even against greeting Christians during their holidays.
According to a statement, el-Sissi told Pope Tawadros that Christians and Muslims will remain united.
Riding a wave of widespread support for the military after Morsi’s ouster, el-Sissi is widely expected to win the coming May 26-27 presidential election. There is little opposition to the former military chief, who retired before declaring his bid as Egyptian law bans soldiers from running.
Official campaigning is due to start May 2, when officials announce a final list of candidates.
Hamdeen Sabahi, a former left-leaning presidential candidate, made formal his bid for office, submitting to the election commission just a little over 30,000 signatures Saturday endorsing his candidacy. That is 5,000 more than what is required, but is six times less than the number of signatures el-Sissi presented to the commission.
Sabahi came in third in 2012 elections, garnering around 5 million votes. But the elections and the national mood were different, with fierce competition between candidates.
After submitting his papers, Sabahi said he hoped for fair elections and described his campaign as one to realize the demands of a youth-led revolution.
“Everyone who signed the petition for me I consider a hero,” he said. “This is a great moment to complete with our free votes the path set by those who lost their lives (in the revolution). … God willing, we will have a great (election) battle and a victorious one.”
His supporters chanted: “Big is Big! You don’t have to be a military general.”
Sabahi’s campaign managers had complained that there was a campaign of intimidation during the signature collection and of bias by state officials for el-Sissi. They blamed Mubarak-era officials who want to come back into power.
The elections will be held amid a fierce government crackdown on Morsi supporters and little tolerance for criticism. At least 16,000 people are detained and hundreds face trial. Violence also has been on the rise, with regular militant attacks against soldiers and police.
On Saturday, a militant group called Ajnad Misr, or “Egypt’s Soldiers,” claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed a police officer late Friday in Cairo. The group said it is waging a campaign of retribution for the killing and detentions of protesters and young Egyptians.
In another sign of how different the mood is in Egypt, Saudi-owned satellite television network Middle East Broadcasting Center said Egypt’s top satirist Bassem Youssef will be off the air until after the election to avoid influencing voters. Youssef, often compared to U.S. comedian Jon Stewart, previously told his audience that he intended to take his two-week break starting this week.
MBC said the hiatus would show “respect for the election process, and … avoid influencing Egyptian voters’ orientation and public opinion.”
MBC began airing Youssef’s show in February after an Egyptian private channel suspended it last fall for attacking “symbols of the state.” Since returning to air, Youssef has ridiculed the recent surge of nationalism in Egypt, as well as the euphoria surrounding el-Sissi. Many opponents of Morsi were fans of Youssef, but now have turned against him for questioning the military-backed government.
In Friday’s episode, Youssef suggested it was a forgone conclusion that el-Sissi will win.
“After three years of back and forth revolution, there will be no real competition? How come people are accepting this?” he asked, attributing it to a campaign of intimidation. Then he played a series of television interviews with public figures and citizens suggesting that Egypt without el-Sissi will collapse.
He ended the skit by holding up a placard that read: “The End,” suggesting Egypt’s revolution was over.
“It was a nice movie,” he said.